Guide to buying inexpensive fruit in Japan

One of my favorite things about buying produce in Japan is seasonality. As many food writers have pointed out, most people have completely lost touch with the seasons and phases of food. We no longer set our schedules by planting and harvest times, and a grocery store without year-round apples seems strange. I’m not going to romanticize rural Japan to you – grocery stores import produce from the southern hemisphere to add to their variety, and there are plenty of city kids who wouldn’t be able to tell you when to plant your seeds any more than they’d know how. Yet, Japan always seems to have one gloved hand on tradition while the other grasps at the present, and I do find it easier to eat with the seasons here. My favorite fruit is the fig, which is just rounding out its peak season and can still be bought inexpensively.

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No Newton necessary.

There’s a philosophical benefit to buying with the seasons: the appreciation of rarity. I enjoy figs more when I know I can’t have them every day. I buy the plumpest, juiciest summer grapes and I eat them slowly. There’s always something to look forward to – just the other day on a morning run, I saw the first persimmons hanging from my neighbors tree, little orange bulbs blushing green with newness in some places. Ripe, earth-grown produce contains more nutrients, and buying locally obviates the need for expensive and environmentally unfriendly shipping across the globe. Oh, wait, you’ve heard this before? I know, me too. (You all have permission to kill me if I ever start wearing my hair in long braids and tweeting under some name like la_vida_locavore.)

More practicallyl, peak-season fruit tends to be cheaper. I get the sneaking suspicion that people who complain about expensive produce in Japan are people who walk into a grocery store, grab the first familiar fruit (a bubble-wrapped peach, for instance), and then balk at the price upon checkout. You’re on an island chain in Asia.

But, you know, sometimes you want a damn tangerine, and I would never belittle anybody for that. We are privileged people living in amazingly advanced times, and one sign of that is being able to enjoy a piece of citrus from 5,000 miles away. You can’t wear the hair-shirt all the time. But if you want to get the best deal on fruit, I suggest the following:

  • Shop around. Scout multiple groceries. At the risk of sounding totally mental, I go to different grocers for different kinds of fruit and vegetables. A bunch of bananas here for ¥100 less, apples on sale for ¥77 there, and this one place used to sell boxes packed with kumquats for ¥200 yen, whereas everywhere else was selling them for ¥800.
  • Buy from the “not-so-fresh” rack, which contains produce that is, yes, not-so-fresh by Japanese standards, but usually totally fine by anyone else’s; it’s usually just past its ridiculously short sell-by date. “Old produce” in Japan is still pretty much “farm fresh!” in America.
  • Find out what’s being harvested right now in your area. Apples are always going to be expensive in Kyushu because the bulk of them come from northeastern Japan or from overseas. But your neighbors probably can’t even give all their backyard persimmons away.

And with that, I’d like to present you with a table of fruit by season, at least here in Kyushu. In addition, I’m providing a highly subjective list of reasonable prices one might pay. (“It’s a banana, Michael, how much can it cost? $10?”) No price means I don’t buy them often enough to be able to give a good estimate.

Fall

  • Persimmons (6 for ¥300)
  • Apples (1 for ¥80-100)
  • Grapes (1 package/punnet for ¥250-300, local)
  • Figs (6 for ¥300)
  • Kiwi (1 for ¥80)
  • Nashi (Japanese pear) (1 for ¥100-130)
  • Young mikan (Mandarin orange)

Winter

  • Mikan (Mandarin orange) (8 for ¥300)
  • Kinkan (kumquat) (20 for ¥300)
  • Yuzu (lemon-like citrus)
  • Random local citrus (some good, some not so good)

Spring (the worst time for fruit)

  • Strawberries (1 punnet for ¥250-300)
  • Cherries in late spring (1 punnet for ¥400)

Summer

  • Biwa (loquat) (8 for ¥300)
  • Cherries (1 punnet for ¥400)
  • Grapes (1 package or punnet for ¥250-300, local)
  • Peaches (1 for ¥150)
  • Watermelon (1 quarter for ¥200-250)
  • Pineapple (1 medium for ¥200)
  • Kabosu Limes
  • Other expensive-ass melons I’ve never tried, regrettably

It’s worth noting that bananas are not grown in Japan and are usually imported from Vietnam or the Philippines; it’s also worth noting that they tend to be far cheaper per unit than Japan-grown fruits. (Many people will chalk this up to quality, which certainly can’t be denied, but it probably has more to do with protectionist policies and farm subsidies. Read: Pro-TPP article and Anti-TPP article for further research, if you’re interested.)

Growing up in Colorado, we used to look forward to Palisade peaches each summer – huge spheres of juicy flesh the size of a baby’s head. It’s impossible not to get sticky when eating a Palisade peach, but in Japan, fruit is always peeled and cut up before being eaten to avoid any chance of messiness. I often find myself hoping this is just a showy display of refinement put on in public, and that many people secretly enjoy the primal gnash and slush of biting into a fruit that is much too big for their mouths. But that may just be wishful thinking.

Lazy beggar + cheap fruit = 4evr <3

Lazy beggar + cheap fruit = 4evr ❤

Kinako, black sesame spread, and fruit = ambrosia

Kinako is a toasted soybean powder that tastes pleasantly nutty. You’ve probably had it dusted over mochi, which is all I’d ever really had it on as well. But then one of my adult conversation class students – who is probably about 85 years old and still “shreddin’ it,” as the kids say – told me she eats kinako in her yogurt every morning. So, in my quest to live forever genki, I tried it.

Just one spoonful is all you nee-ee-eed.

Whoa. Delicious.

The whole experience got me thinking; what else could I put kinako in or on?

So I put it in pancake batter. Amazing.
Sprinkled kinako, cinnamon, and sugar on my toast. Earth-shattering.
Dusted it over a plate of apple slices. Seriously, someone please stop me, I’m out of control.

Here’s a picture of the apple before I devoured it too quickly:

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The black dots are sesame seeds. When I made this snack again, I made a paste of black sesame (kurogoma 黒ごま) and honey – 1 part black sesame to spread to 2 parts honey. If you don’t like apple, it goes especially well with pineapple and orange. When making this paste, a little goes a long way, as black sesame has a stronger taste than its white counterpart. Or, you can just pick up the pre-made kurogoma spread at your local Kosumosu; this is the lazy beggars’ guide, after all.

But if you forgo the sesame, at least try a bit of kinako on your next bowl of fruit. That’s going to be my mantra from here on out, like the Portlandia “Put a Bird On It” thing: Put Some Kinako On It!

Worst Citrus Ever

Last week at work, several coworkers were “gifted” with large, bulky bags of a mottled yellow citrus fruit.Image

They smelled lovely – an aromatic blend of lemon and grapefruit – so I couldn’t understand why many people were so keen on giving away as many as possible. I ended up with about three jumbo pieces before I started turning away donations.

When I got home, I eagerly cut into my new treasures. Almost immediately I could see why nobody wanted anything to do with these yellow bastards; they are quite possibly the worst citrus ever, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Dozens of deeply embedded seeds make the fruit difficult to eat like a grapefruit. It doesn’t produce a lot of juice – in fact, I could hardly squeeze a drop without physically digging through the pulp with my fingernails. The pith was thick and fused to the pulp, which itself failed to live up to its smell: my first bite delivered nothing but a punchless lemon flavor dotted by the bitterness of the pith that still clung on for dear life.

A coworker told me the name, but I forgot it. Maybe there are some connoisseurs of incorrigible citrus out there who know? Either way, you’re better off sticking with one of the dozens of other Japanese citrus fruits, like the beloved winter mikan – sadly on its way out of season now.